THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES Playing like a discarded X-Files episode yet based on a 1975 book by John A. Keel, this finds director Mark Pellington mining the same air of uneasiness that made his Arlington Road such a prickly treat. Yet while this new endeavor isn't as tightly scripted as that earlier effort, it does demonstrate how good direction and convincing performances can goose a project that otherwise might find itself mired in hokum. Billing itself as "based on true events," this stars Richard Gere as John Klein, an ace reporter and grieving widower who finds himself mysteriously drawn to a West Virginia town that's been privy to various unexplained occurrences. With the help of the local sheriff (Laura Linney), Klein tries to piece the puzzle together, only to conclude that the town itself is headed for major disaster -- and that his late wife (Debra Messing) may be trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave. Gere's conviction and Pellington's atmospherics count for a lot, but the repetitive nature of Richard Hatem's script prevents the movie from ever reaching its full potential: The mystery doesn't deepen as much as it keeps skating along the surface. 1/2
A BEAUTIFUL MIND Director Ron Howard's never been known for taking a radical approach to cinema -- even his best pictures have a stuffed-shirt quality about them -- but in tackling the story of John Nash Jr., the math genius who suffered from schizophrenia but still won the Nobel Prize, Howard has loosened up enough to imbue the project with a jangled-nerve approach that allows us to feel like both observers and participants in Nash's neverending struggles with his own mind. Russell Crowe is excellent as Nash, but almost as impressive is Jennifer Connelly, the raven-haired beauty who, after being dismissed over the past decade-plus as pin-up fodder, builds on last year's Requiem for a Dream breakout with a touching performance as Nash's strong-willed wife. (Another plus: A superb score by James Horner that never travels quite where we expect.) The film may play fast and loose with the facts -- so what else is new in Hollywood? -- but even sticklers for historical accuracy may have to grudgingly admire its efficiency. 1/2
BLACK HAWK DOWN This adaptation of Mark Bowen's account of the 1993 military operation in Somalia that left several Americans dead is being given the Oscar push, but the truth is that the film adds precious little to the long line of war pictures that have come out of Hollywood over the last century -- on the contrary, the movie seems to exist in a bubble, hermetically sealed off from the emotional pull that helped define most of the great war flicks. From the start, this fails to provide much historical or political context to its proceedings, yet even more detrimental is that none of the key contributors -- director Ridley Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer or novice screenwriter Ken Nolan -- deemed it important to place any stock in their cast of characters. Obviously, Scott et al wanted to recreate the wartime experience in all its shell-shocked urgency rather than fashion a more traditional (read: narrative-driven) movie, but Saving Private Ryan managed to accomplish both objectives without any compromises. Some familiar actors pop up here and there, but for the most part, the unflagging sound and fury make it impossible to identify or empathize with these characters as individuals, since their primary function seems to be to serve as an anonymous slab of American fortitude.
BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF Movies that adopt an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach are often maddening messes, but this French import is reminiscent of countless other films and yet still manages to retain its own swagger of originality. With a first half that plays like Sleepy Hollow, a second half that begs comparison to From Hell, and elements of Jaws, The Last of the Mohicans, The Company of Wolves and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scattered throughout, this delirious experience covers most bases and makes at least a cursory stab at the few it misses. In 18th century France, a naturist/philosopher (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Iroquois companion (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the royal court to investigate a series of slayings in the French countryside. The creature responsible is reportedly a monstrous wolf, but as the pair investigate, they discover that several of the locals may know more about the affair than they're admitting. This one's got it all: martial arts, political intrigue, tender romance (between Le Bihan and Rosetta's Emilie Dequenne), steamy sex scenes (between Le Bihan and Malena's Monica Bellucci), and a snapping, snarling, bloodthirsty beast.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO Disney's live-action films frequently have all the flavor of a Styrofoam cup (see Snow Dogs below), but occasionally the studio manages to deliver a robust retelling of a cherished classic. In the tradition of their winning 1994 take on The Jungle Book, this latest version of Alexandre Dumas' novel is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that makes the most of its compelling storyline. Jim Caviezel, generally that most somnambular of actors, turns out to be a good choice to play Edmond Dantes, the good-hearted seaman who's wrongly incarcerated for 13 years, escapes from prison, reinvents himself as a nobleman, and coldly seeks revenge on those who betrayed him. Memento's Guy Pearce is all snaky insouciance as Dantes' former friend, while Traffic's Luiz Guzman is up to his usual scene-stealing ways as Dantes' no-nonsense sidekick (though this modern man seems as out of place in this period setting as would an SUV). In this pumped-up era, it's refreshing to come across an adventure tale that's free of rapid-cut edits, a blaring modern score and Matrix-style action scenes. Savor it while you can.